Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Cool Kids

By Mitchell

There’s been a revival of interest of late in Charles Schulz and his creation, Peanuts, with a documentary on PBS this week, a new biography in the bookstores, and the holiday trifecta – the Great Pumpkin, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – on the way.

And so it’s not surprising that there’s an article on Peanuts in the Strib Monday morning. The question it asks: has Snoopy lost his cool? It’s a question worth discussing, for many reasons.

The question of whether or not Peanuts is still cool isn’t a new one. Last year, when the Mall of America announced a deal with Nickelodeon for its characters to grace the mall’s indoor amusement park that had been formerly known as Camp Snoopy (after the mall had failed to reach terms to continue the Peanuts tie-in) , the reaction from retail experts was fairly positive. SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer were, it was argued, far more “in” with kids than Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Peanuts had become, the experts agreed, more of a nostalgia kick, something that parents could look back on with affection, reliving their own childhood. Peanuts might still be beloved, but clearly the demographics were skewing in the wrong direction. Today’s article reiterates much the same thing.

This kind of questioning was inevitable given that there are no new Peanuts strips being written, no opportunity for Schulz to offer commentary on the events of today. It is, literally, a nostalgia item, a throwback to another era. And so perhaps it's a good thing to remind ourselves that the question is something of a moot point. Why should kids consider Peanuts cool, after all? The fact is that Peanuts was for adults, written with an adult sensibility, with humor that could have been right out of the pages of The New Yorker, the kind of thing that people cut out and put up at work. Although kids would always find a humorous side to it, it was never really intended to appeal to children as primary readers. In an entry in the St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, we find this paragraph that sums it up:

The Peanuts characters, however, are not typical children. They do torment each other (making them some of the first realistic children in comics) and play games, much as other children do, but the Peanuts characters are somewhat more serious and intelligent than the average child. Lucy says she would like real estate for Christmas, Linus can philosophize about life's problems while sucking his thumb, and Schroeder's hero is Beethoven. They quote the Bible and have incredible vocabularies. Not only are these children intelligent, they are independent. Adults only appear "off stage," and rarely at that. The Peanuts characters seem to go through most of their activities with little adult supervision or interference, and they manage just fine. The characters tend to be a bit less fun-loving than the children we know. They are all somewhat depressed, and when they laugh, they tend to be laughing at each other rather than something innocent that simply strikes them as funny. As Schulz says in Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Me, "Strangely enough, pleasant things are not really funny. You can't create humor out of happiness." Charlie Brown himself is the apex of this philosophy. The Peanuts characters have enough childlike qualities to keep children interested, but much of this is adult humor.

So, one might wonder, how did we get to the point where we started to see Peanuts primarily as children's entertainment? As Schulz biographer David Michaelis, author of Schulz and Peanuts, points out, much of this transition comes with the advent of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." In the wake of the phenomenal success of the TV special, the Peanuts kids became some of the most heavily merchandised characters around. Invariably, the books, stuffed animals, and other tie-ins were marketed to, and found their largest audience with, children. More TV specials followed, often tied in to holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving, and the cartoons came to define the seasonal aspects of those holidays - merchandising seasons, for one thing.

At the same time, Schulz began to draw the primary focus of the strip somewhat away from Charlie Brown and his existential difficulties, and more toward the fantasy life of Snoopy. Snoopy became something of a Walter Mitty; traveling to the moon, playing golf at the Masters, competing for the Stanley Cup on the icy pond of a birdbath. They were, in fact, the same kinds of fantasies that many children had - whereas Charlie Brown, in his Sisyphusian parallel, had always struggled to kick that football before Lucy could pull it away, Snoopy's athletic endeavors were thes kind of fantasies played out on playgrounds, where kids imagined themselves with a chance to win the Super Bowl or the World Series by making that winning shot or catching the ball for the final out.

In the past Charlie Brown had always been Snoopy's foil, as if the dog were some type of Sybil dispensing the cruel realities of Fate, but now Snoopy acquired his own sidekick, the bird Woodstock, and together the two became something of a comedy team, further taking away the focus from the children, sometimes for days at a time.

Finally, as Michaelis points out, Schulz used Peanuts as a virtual diary. In looking back at the events of Schulz's life, from his childhood to his failed marriage and his romances, to his eternal struggles against the dual tormenters of self-doubt and ego, we see these all emerging from the words and thought bubbles of his child characters. With this knowledge the strip often assumes a dual meaning, and in one way it makes it difficult to read the old jokes in quite the same way as you did in the past.

Schulz was by these accounts a difficult man, gifted but doubting, modest yet arrogant, and oftentimes not particularly likeable. I can remember, even as a kid when Peanuts was my favorite strip, thinking that there often was something not quite right about it. How could anyone be as much of a failure as Charlie Brown? How could others inflict such cruelty as casually as so many of the kids did? Why, in fact, did he not just buck up and, as Lucy would say, deal with it?

Like many adults, my affection for Peanuts has remained, but the ardor hasn't. Today it comes across as humorous, still better than 90% of the dreck that litters the funny pages, but hardly the must-read that it once was. The relevance of its eternal truths continues, but the topical humor that was always one of Schulz's hallmarks can be hard to identify. In my mind, Calvin and Hobbes had long since surpassed Peanuts as both insightful and cutting-edge, the kind of thing at which Schulz used to excel. And yet there is no question that Schulz, flaws and all, remains a giant of cartooning - indeed, of pop culture, if not of literature itself. We can't afford to lose sight of that.

And so perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised at the conversation about whether or not kids still find Peanuts cool, for it is difficult to remember that once upon a time Peanuts wasn't really about kids at all.

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